[FAQ] What Causes Navigational Errors & Why They’re Always Preventable?

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Credit: Ruben Christen/Unsplash

Imagine the following scenario:

There is plenty of space between the two ships as they get closer. It’s a clear night, and they can see each other clearly both visually and with radar equipment. Equipment for both ships is functioning fine, and multiple officers onboard are on the watch (or just observing) (or just observing). Nevertheless, in spite of everything, the captain of one of the ships chooses to make a turn that will directly collide with the other ship. His crew, knowing what’s about to unfold, say nothing as the two ships inevitably clash.

It sounds ridiculous to people who weren’t there, but this is a description of what happened between the M/V Santa Cruz II and the USCGC Cuyahoga. No one intended to collide with the other ship, no equipment was malfunctioning, and there was nothing affecting visibility. There was virtually nothing that could have led to the collision.

Except for one thing:

The Cuyahoga’s captain misinterpreted the running lights of the Santa Cruz, and so misjudged the size of the ship. He believed his order to turn put him well out of the way of the other vessel’s path. However, though his crew knew exactly how big the Santa Cruz was (and that the turn would put them in harm’s way), they presumed that the captain knew as much as they did—so they said nothing.

The collision caused the death of 11 Coast Guardsmen that night.

What is a navigational error?

A navigational error occurs whenever a mistake is made during the operation of a vessel. According to the Nautical Almanac, navigation is an exact science that is becoming increasingly precise as the technology that operates vessels continues to evolve.

Navigational errors can involve the improper use of equipment, failure to look out for surroundings, miscalculations, and any other oversight vessel operators make that should have been avoided. Even if a process is automated, navigators should be trained and ready to identify any errors produced by it. In other words, navigational errors are always a result of human error and are always preventable.

Navigation errors are ultimately human errors

According to the U.S. Coast Guard Research & Development Center, 89-96% of vessel collisions are caused by human errors—notably, usually by a sequence of human errors occurring at once or in quick succession. A Dutch study cited in the report researched 100 maritime casualties and found that in 93 of them, 2 or more individuals each committed at least 2 errors that led to the injury or death of a crew member.

Here’s the worst part:

According to the report, in these 93 cases, “every human error that was made was determined to be a necessary condition for the accident.” In other words, the situation could have been prevented if one mistake had been corrected. Just one.

In a presentation from a forensic engineering firm in partnership with the California Maritime Academy, experts highlighted that most navigation errors have nothing to do with the technology involved—and in fact, overreliance on navigation technology makes vessels less safe, not more. So the human error is the ultimate cause of most vessel navigation problems and is the root cause of virtually all casualties at sea. That much is obvious—but how can navigation systems account for human mistakes? What do vessel navigation errors specifically have in common?

The National Safety Council published a report that highlighted the most common causes of navigation errors:

  • Failing to adhere to established procedure, or “winging it”
  • Distraction from the navigational tasks at hand
  • Ambiguity or disagreement between multiple instruments or sources of information
  • The bridge staff failing to remain vigilant, or “not minding the store”

In August 1999, a cruise ship collided with a container vessel in the English Channel because the staff committed nearly all these mistakes. Only one officer was on watch during a period of high traffic in the Channel (while the procedure required two officers to be on watch). Moreover, he was engaged with clerical tasks that took his attention from the 10 other vessels near the cruise liner.

In addition, he was relying entirely on his radar instruments (which were not calibrated correctly and should have been spotted) and he neglected to simply look around. The officer’s negligence caused a collision, despite having ample time to correct and prevent it.

However, the NSC report highlighted the most vital thing that stands between a vessel’s safety and navigation disasters: situational awareness.

Allisions: the lesser-known results of navigational errors

When two vessels collide, the incident is known as a collision. Yet, when a vessel collides with a stationary object, the event is called an allision. When the person in charge of a ship allows an allision to happen, they’re demonstrating a concerning lack of what many refer to as situational awareness. It’s a vessel operators’ job to avoid collisions and allision, and simple training and awareness should stop them from making these mistakes.

Situational awareness: a secret weapon against collisions & allisions

In the report from the National Safety Council, they found that navigation errors all involved a failure of “situational awareness.” Situational awareness is defined as the ability to comprehend the conditions that affect a vessel during a high-risk situation. It’s the ability to remain mentally present, to pay attention to the relevant data, and act accordingly to the right factors.

Situational awareness can fail from a number of factors, including:

  • Overwork or fatigue
  • Distraction (e.g. poor weather, personal issues, phone use)
  • Lack of staffing
  • Lack of constant communication
  • Insufficient knowledge of the ship itself
  • An unseaworthy vessel

Adequate situational awareness can help steer a ship through the worst of conditions, including disastrous weather or malfunctioning navigation equipment. However, poor situational awareness can lead to a disaster under the most ideal circumstances—that’s why you’ll hear about captains running aground or colliding with other vessels in broad daylight, with clear skies, on wide-open water.

Situational awareness failure includes:

  • The inability to keep track of events
  • Failure to assess the significance of events
  • Failure to take corrective action

Good navigation only requires a few things: redundancy, cross-checking, and the use of bodily senses (along with training and experience). That’s it. Ship managers and navigation staff simply need to exercise the simple caution of using their common sense, remain vigilant, and save secondary tasks for another time. When they don’t, innocent people can pay a steep price for their mistakes.

 

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Source: Offshore Injury Firm

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